Fear and misinformation go viral in Fiji

Fiji’s Red Cross workers are met with suspicion in their own villages due to Covid-19, Teuila Fuatai reports. 

A Covid-19 herbal tea cure, vodka that eliminates the virus, and cell towers enabling its spread – just some of the more extreme rumours circulating in Fiji about Covid-19. 

With 17 confirmed cases and the14-day lockdown lifted from Suva at 5.30am Friday morning, authorities have taken a heavy-handed approach to those defying emergency rules.  More than 1000 people have been arrested since special emergency laws were implemented on March 30, including a handful of individuals accused of spreading false information or promoting information that allegedly harms the Government’s response plan. 

While the authoritative approach sends a clear message to flagrant rule breakers and loud conspiracy theorists, debunking fear and misinformation at community level requires a slightly different approach. 

Ilisapeci Rokotunidau, Director-General of Fiji Red Cross (with 250 staff and volunteers), says misinformation about how Covid-19 is spread is the main issue.

“Often, it’s partly true, but partly false.”

Information for the masses on Covid-19. Photo: Fiji Red Cross. 

She says there is a lack of clear understanding about how the disease is transmitted and how to prevent it. “Some people think it’s the length of time you’re in Suva, or in the cities – which isn’t completely false. But then, that doesn’t mean you don’t change habits and observe restrictions, like keeping the two-metre distance or have good hand-washing practices.”

For volunteers working in their own communities and villages, the priority is ensuring the right information gets through. When Fiji’s first cases were announced in Lautoka last month, volunteers distributing information about Covid-19 and promoting safe practice were met with suspicion. 

“These are people in their own communities, in their own villages, who were not being allowed into households in the very places they were from. They were told, ‘Oh, it’s because you go to town, and you go here and you meet other people, and you might be the person bringing it. 

“We’ve never had anything like that,” Rokotunidau says. “But then, we’ve never seen anything like Covid-19 before.” 

An initial “overflow” of information from organisations such as the Health Ministry and police created a lot of uncertainty, she says. Local media and government authorities also focused on individual cases and their families, and reported people trying to hide symptoms and evade identification.

“People were a bit afraid and they were not sure how to handle the messages [about] Covid-19 because of the information overflow at the top level, and some people were just not sure how it was spread,” she says.

A grassroots volunteer network, which only last week was busy responding to Cyclone Harold, is now busy addressing basic information needs.

“All our volunteers have megaphones – because that’s actually used by them during disasters. They ended up using them to do their awareness [for Covid-19]. So they’d leave resources outside a house and could talk to people without going inside. 

“As the weeks have gone on, [the volunteers] are saying they’re feeling a lot more confident and families are not so scared. It’s also helped getting protective gear and equipment to volunteers. People see that and have engaged a bit more.”

Carl Lorentzen is the Red Cross Communications Manager for the entire Pacific. He has similar concerns to Rokotunidau, and emphasises that each Pacific nation has its own unique challenges. 

Volunteers work in their own communities to spread the word. Photo: Fiji Red Cross. 

While Fiji is pursuing a containment and elimination policy, Sāmoa and Tonga remain Covid-19-free. Notably, the Sāmoan Government addressed the 5G cell phone network conspiracy head-on by issuing a statement that it had no evidentiary base. 

“Because of the fake news that has been circulated about 5G and its connection to Covid-19 we are witnessing in other countries people are destroying critical infrastructure that keeps them connected,” the statement read. “It is important that we as a nation understand that there is no 5G threat so that we do not result to destroying critical infrastructure at this time of difficulty and when it is mostly needed.”

Lorentzen says volunteers had reported few concerns about conspiracy theories, complacency, and the wider social and economic impacts of lockdowns. But trading restrictions and border closures from Covid-19 all effect the type of information reaching communities. 

“Overall, in the Pacific, we haven't seen a huge number of cases of Covid-19 – which is great. Of course, people will start to create or spread rumours, and we have had trouble in some communities which have been targeted by people peddling fake cures for Covid-19.”

For the Red Cross, which partners with other NGOs and government institutions, its main strength is in its volunteer network. Even with the influence of social media among urban Pacific populations, personal contact is often the most effective way of reaching people, he says. 

“That is really where we play our part – when we mobilise all our volunteers throughout the Pacific. For example, in the last few days, we have been going door-to-door in Palau to make sure everyone is aware of how to tackle Covid-19, what they can do and what they shouldn’t do.”

The Pacific’s experience as a disaster-prone region is also important, particularly for smaller nations that are attempting to remain Covid-19 free, he adds. 

“A lot of our work is simply making sure that people are prepared between disasters. At the moment, it means we work a lot on having the right infrastructure – from things like appropriate shelter to access to clean water and sanitation stations.” 

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